Friday, July 17, 2020

Book Review - The Very First Americans - by Cara Ashrose

The book The Very First Americans by Cara Ashrose (illustrated by Bryna Waldman) seems pretty popular for younger ages and grades. I find it in libraries, posts from teachers about their classrooms, and in homeschool book collections as well as recommended in curriculums.

At first glance, the cover contains stereotypes. The first things children often think of when they think of Native peoples are tipis and buffalo, or something from various Plains nations. This is largely due to their exposure to stereotypes early on and often in American media, books, and pop culture (that are typically based on Plains nations). Of course some Native nations did historically live in tipis and hunt buffalo, but of the myriad of ways to introduce us to children through images, the creators of this book went with common stereotypical imagery. The clothing depicted is inaccurate as well. The cover is what non-Native people imagine our past to be like rather than ways in which we would typically choose to represent ourselves.

The name "First Americans" is problematic. We are not the "first Americans." We predate "America." We are our own nations.

The book begins with the Bering Strait mythology that has been seriously called into question by scientists in the past few decades. Indigenous peoples have been questioning it a lot longer. (More here:
https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/bering-strait-theory-pt-1-how-dogma-trumped-science-Q2ff_I3a5EClaPY4VJU_yQ).
It acknowledges the fact that there were many different nations that were unique and culturally different, but the amount "of hundreds" is low when looking at the Americas as a whole. It says Columbus landed in America. If "America" means the United States, which this book seems to indicate, then he definitely did not come to "America." This introduction does not offer any cultural ideas about our origins; no creation stories or traditional accounts. When teaching about our origins, our own perspectives are vital to the lesson. It also calls us "tribes" instead of nations. We are sovereign nations. (https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/on-the-words-tribe-and-nation-NUTfP-tyU0uqza8cle2BSg)

The pages then describe different Native nations from around the United States in the past tense only. Many of these nations and traditions still exist today. Page after page shows Native men wearing no shirts and only breechcloths, as if all Native men around the entire continent dress the same and were usually almost naked even in the winter. The women aren't depicted much better. They all dress pretty much the same no matter which region the book is talking about. The interpretations of the cultures and traditions are overly simplistic and very much written from an outside perspective. It is possible to write about other cultures for young children to understand in a way that is respectful, but this book does not do so. Each region describes a handful of nations, but grouped together as though they're all the same and lived the same ways in the past. On the first page it says our "tribes" are all different, but then goes on to lump us all into monolithic groups depending on geographic location.

Instead of explaining how the Puebloan peoples of the Southwest created vast networks of irrigation canals or talking about their advanced farming techniques, they poorly describe a ceremony to pray for rain. Religious ceremonies of different Native nations should only be written about by people from those nations and only if the nation chooses to share that information. For Plains nations, it says that a "whole village could be ready to move in just minutes." These villages could have hundreds of people, dozens of tipis, as well as animals, supplies, and belongings. It did not take "minutes." It later calls tipis "tents." It continues generalizing nations depending on region as you move through the book. "Most woodlands tribes had leaders called chiefs." The leaders of Native nations had different titles in their own languages, none of which were "chief." That is a European term. It then inaccurately describes Massasoit's relationship with the "pilgrims." Each region is overly simplistic and contains inaccuracies.

To close the book it says "For hundreds of years, Indians were the only Americans." Hundreds of years? The reality is thousands of years. Again with calling us "Americans." It sums up the entirety of colonization in about four sentences. Even for young children, it takes much more than this. The last page is the only place that mentions Native peoples in present tense, and the information is dated as this was published in 1993 and not updated.

It is easy to settle with common books like this one, but please find books by Native authors to teach your children or students about us instead of books like this. These books do a disservice to every child who reads them, Native or non-Native alike. If you find this book in your schools or libraries or curriculums, please talk to someone about swapping it out with a Native authored children's book instead.






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